The Scorched earth of India: Climate Change a threat multiplier

02 July 2015

In the wake of the recent heat wave in India, where life sapping temperatures reached 48 degrees and above, we were witness to the devastating effects that climate change has and will continue to cause on rural and urban populations. The Indian Minister of Earth Sciences, Harsh Vardhan encapsulated the impact of the heat wave; "It's not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change." (Rush, 2015). This passionate statement from Vardhan emphasized that climate change wasn’t a future problem but an immediate concern for India; the climate had changed.

Although we cannot conclude that climate change resulted in the severity of the heat wave, we can argue that climate change to an extent contributed to the longevity and oppressive nature which characterized this extreme event. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that extreme events such as the Indian heat wave will become more frequent and severe as a result of climate change (Scheffran & Battaglini, 2011, 28-29). These events will bring a plethora of issues for India; from food security, to access to water, to governance and development issues, as well as internal and external security threats. Whilst all these issues are interlinked with one area impacting another, the material security threat is of particular concern.  

The Security Dimension:

The devastating toll from the Indian heatwave which claimed at least 2500 lives can be analyzed through a diversity of perspectives, but what is of profound interest is the interconnected relationship between climate change and security. This relationship will come to define the South Asia region and particularly challenge India’s response to threats and risks.

From a security perspective climate change can be a threat multiplier, whilst India must mourn the recent deaths of the thousands who perished, The Modi government must consider the broader security implications.This is because climate change can dramatically alter the geopolitical security ‘equation’ for national security, as Cleo Paskal from Chatham House argues (2009, 1143). 

The devastating heat wave in India has highlighted how the variable of climate change complicates the national security equation, and both intensifies pre-existing threats and creates new consequences. External security threats for India range from fragile border areas with neighboring states where climatic change could exacerbate tensions over access to water, transnational crime, terrorism and in a worst case scenario a flood of refugees, particularly from the low lying regions of Bangladesh. The major concern for India in regards to external threats is that climate change intensifies transnational problems. South Asia’s security threats become risks for India, leading to a situation where climate change threatens the stability of the region.  The internal security threats and risks of climate change for India also feeds into external threats, the boundaries ultimately become blurred.

The internal threats and risks for India come from the capacity of cities to build adaptive systems to meet the present and future security challenges of climatic change. This is because climate change overstretches the adaptive capacities of cities, destabilizing governance, and in worst case scenarios creates a dangerous environment that fuels instability and violence. Reduced availability of water and long periods of drought could drive large internal migration, placing immense pressure on urban cities to manage migration and security issues that could arise. This is a major concern because it can result in a situation where a fragile periphery inhabited by a new urban class is built around a pre-existing urban core as Australian strategist David Kilcullen describes (2012, 26-27). The urban periphery can cause significant internal security problems for India and the governance systems of separate Indian states. Irregular forms of conflict, insurgencies and even terrorism could thrive off a fragile urban periphery fuelled by internal migration as a result of environmental change. It is evident that climate change will transform the internal security landscape of India, potentially fuelling pre-existing tensions and security risks, which in turn could undermine the adaptive capacity of cities and governance structures.

In light of the above analysis it can be concluded that the devastating heat wave that ravaged India earlier this month drew our attention to how climate change will transform the security landscape of India and the South Asian region. The challenge for the present BJP government and future governments of India is to ensure that governance structures are not overwhelmed and destabilized by climate change.

Author’s Biography:

Thomas Penfold is a graduate from the Master of International Relations program at The University of Melbourne, who is interested in the South Asian region following a study tour and travel experience in 2014. Thomas is currently based in Vientiane Laos working in the Education Management field.


Kilcullen, D.J., (2012), ‘The City as a System: Future Conflict and Urban Resilience’, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Vol. 36, No.2., pp. 19 – 38.

Pascal, C., (2009), ‘From Constants to Variables: How Environmental Change Alters the Geopolitical and Geo-Economic Equation’, International Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 6, pp. 1143 -1156.

Rush, J., (June 3rd, 2015), Minister blames India’s heatwave on climate change as death toll reaches 2500, The Independent, retrieved from

Scheffran, J., & Battaglini, A., (2011) ‘Climate and conflicts: security risks of global warming’, Regional Environmental Change, Vol. 11., No. 2, pp. 27 – 39.